history fair

Official image for the American, academic competition of National History Day, 2014.

On Saturday, March 1, 2014, Niles North High School in the village of Skokie, Illinois, hosted the Suburban Regional Competition for the Chicago Metro History Fair. The top 300 students from nineteen suburban secondary schools came to Niles North in order to present 150 historical projects in the format of poster-board exhibit, research paper, performance, documentary, or website. Emelie and I decided to attend the event as first-time, volunteer judges. After two orientations, the event organizers paired us with a veteran judge and assigned us to Room 2030, where we were tasked with judging a panel of 5 group documentaries. The following blog post is a reflection on that experience.

For those who are unfamiliar with this annual event, The Chicago Metro History Fair began in 1977. It is sponsored by The Chicago Metro History Education Center (CMHEC), a non-profit organization which strives to promote  “an approach to history education based on local and community history, project and inquiry-based methods of learning, and the use of primary and secondary sources.” According to their brochure, the fair is only one of several programs that CMHEC uses “to revitalize the learning and teaching of history in the Chicago metropolitan area.”

Registration began at 8:30 in the morning. Coffee and donuts awaited the volunteer judges in the Codell Student Commons, where an hour-long orientation explained the rules for the competition and the guidelines for judging. With no outside help, groups of five students or less were asked to produce ten-minute documentaries on any historical topic relating to the Chicagoland area. The films must have been “produced for computers, video, or DVD,” and they had to be “self-running, with [all] narration pre-recorded.” In addition, each group was required to submit a Summary Statement Form with an annotated bibliography, divided between primary and secondary sources. Finally, Students were encouraged to integrate the National History Day theme, which was “rights and responsibilities.”

Judges were asked to consider the documentaries based upon four categories: Historical Knowledge, Quality of Analysis, Quality of Source Material, and Quality of Presentation. Once we arrived in Room 2030, we were asked to collect the required materials from each group, take notes while viewing their documentaries, interview the group members, distribute participation ribbons, and then retire to the Cordell Commons (where lunch was served) in order to compare notes for our final score sheets. Although some projects ended up receiving higher scores than others,  I was consistently amazed at the quality of historical work that went into producing each film. Here are the highlights:

The first documentary was about the decision of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to support a Neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1978. The filmmakers framed the march in the context of the first amendment, the Nazi regime in Germany, and post-WWII Jewish immigration to Skokie. For sources, they examined newspaper accounts from The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun Times. They pulled historical footage from the march itself and they interviewed a docent from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which, according to the filmmakers, traces its origins to a period of Jewish revelatory experience that directly followed the march. These filmmakers managed to articulate the tensions associated with free speech, while demonstrating how constructive formulations of identity can emerge from a seemingly negative event.

The second documentary was about Dr. Leon Orris Jacobson, a researcher for the University of Chicago who paved the way for modern chemotherapy by pioneered the use of radiation in cancer treatment. For sources, these students visited the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library. They rummaged through boxes of the  Leon O. Jacobson Papers, taking rolling footage of his typed manuscripts and handwritten documents. They supplemented this archival work with a biography of Jacobson written by his childhood friend, as well as photographs from his youth and recorded footage from his lab work. These filmmakers were able to integrate complex scientific language with biographical analysis, and they also positioned Jacobson within his previous experiences, particularly his work on the Manhattan Project.

The third documentary was about the history of the Orthopedic Department of J. Sterling Morton High School East in Cicero, Illinois. In 1924, this department became the only public-school department in the greater Chicagoland area to provide special programs for the “educable mentally handicapped,” including muscle development, reading, arithmetic, and writing. For sources, the filmmakers featured newspaper articles and photographs that traced  the visual history of the program. Most notably, they examined yearbook entries from the early history of the department; and they were currently in the process of using those books to locate alumni who were still living in the Chicagoland area for potential interviews. These filmmakers succeeded in recreating the sensory atmosphere of the Orthopedic Department through their use of diverse, visual imagery.

The fourth documentary was about the Chicago Hull House, founded in 1889 by the Progressive-era social reformers Jane Adams and Ellen Gates Star. For sources, these filmmakers made several trips to the Hull House Museum on Halstead Street at UIC. They took their own pictures, and they integrated those images of material evidence into the documentary. They used pictures of sewing machines, apartments, iron key rings, beds, journals, banners, and even a mold preserving the likeness of Adams. They supplemented these images with historical photographs, online articles, an autobiography written by Adams, and secondary biographies from sources like American National Biography and the Images of America series. These filmmakers seamlessly positioned the Hull House within the contexts of immigration, Progressivism, and the American Settlement Movement.

The fifth documentary was about the impact that Abbott Laboratories in Waukegan, Illinois, had on the growth of its local economy and the national struggle against AIDS and HIV in the early 1980s. For sources, these students began at the Waukegan Historical Society. The society collections led them to interview a local historian named Edward Link, who published Waukegan: A History in 2009. They supplemented this interview with a history of Abbot, online articles about HIV/AIDS in the US, and graphs and distribution maps that charted the spread of AIDS as well as the rise in Abbott stock following their success. In order to strike a balance with the national narrative, these filmmakers integrated footage of celebrities and rallies that contributed to the growing, social awareness of HIV.

Each of the students who presented on Saturday morning had already passed the first round of eliminations within their respective schools. Those who pass this suburban round will meet their Chicago counterparts in the Metro High School Finals at UIC on Monday, April 28. From there, winners will advance to the State History Expo in Springfield, where fourteen projects will be chosen to represent Illinois at the National History Day competition in Baltimore, from June 15-19.

In general, it is a shame that all of these projects cannot move forward. Each of them has something valuable to offer attendants at Baltimore about the unique History of Chicagoland. Each of these groups chose an historical topic which allowed them to make the most of their local resources, and each of them addressed their topics with a mature and sophisticated understanding of historical change over time. Most importantly, each of these young filmmakers took pride in their work, and they demonstrated true promise for the next generation of professional historians.